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Religion, politics and violence (Part 5): political animal

To contextualize the violence that is blindly blamed on religion, this and the next few articles will address two questions.

First, what is the relationship between politics and violence? Second, how does modern politics, especially the nature of the modern state, produce “religious violence”?

Well-known is Aristotle’s observation that man is the only animal that is naturally political. In other words, humans are social beings who cannot avoid coming together to constitute society characterised by organized ways of living and by authorities that restrain individuals from undermining social order.

Some non-human animals like bees and locusts are also said to lead an organized life apparently under some sort of authority. But this, according to Ibn Khaldun, does not mean that the nonhuman animals are political because their ‘organization’ is driven by instinct, not reason, which only humans possess.

Humans are political (i.e. live as society) by virtue of their faculty of reason. Reason, at the most basic level, is the ability to distinguish between the dog as a physical organism and the dog as a concept. The dog as a physical thing is a particular dog—you can see it, touch it, smell it, hear it and even kill and eat it if you like.

But the dog as a concept is abstract and universal—it includes all dogs of all times and all places. The difference between the dog as a physical organism and the dog as a concept is the difference between the particular and the universal, the concrete and the abstract, the empirical and the conceptual, the sensory and the intellectual, and so on.

Some people think that the dog as a physical thing is real while the dog as an abstract concept is unreal. But the matter is more complicated. Plato would ask: how do you know that three breeds of dogs that look completely different from one another are all dogs?

You are able to know because you formed the concept of the dog in the mind. It is this concept that enables you to connect the German Shepherd to the American Eskimo and conclude that both are dogs even when physically they look so different from each other. The concept of the dog, therefore, is the real dog even if it does not bark.

The physical dog that you keep at home, on the other hand, is only a manifestation of the dog; it is not the dog itself. Reason begins with the abstraction from the physical world to form concepts. The ability to abstract and exercise reason is inherent in human beings to varying degrees, but the specific form that reason takes is socially constructed.

Reason is a social construct in the sense that it is rooted in the context in which it is produced. Reason is not reducible to context, but it cannot be detached from context either. This is the meaning of the famous statement that the universal is particular.

Being context-shaped means that reason, including all sciences, is neither objective nor universal, although certain forms of reason have assumed universal hegemony due to the prevailing power relations.

Even mathematics, which is seen as purely universal and purely objective, became Eurocentric and patriarchal through the ways in which it is historicized, taught, applied, and so on.

I said that humans are exclusively political (i.e. form society) because they are exclusively endowed with reason. This does not mean that the principles governing society must be based on reason; they can be derived from religion.

Yet, the very idea that humans live as society is rooted in reason regardless of whether the principles guiding society are informed by reason or religion.

Of course, reason and religion may be different, but they are not mutually exclusive except in silly Eurocentric discourses. How, then, is society organized? Aristotle considers speech—persuasion and deliberation—as the engine. Politics is in action when humans speak to each other and determine how to live together and move forward.

Inspired by Aristotle, some modern thinkers like Hannah Arendt have drawn a radical distinction between politics and violence, claiming that political power is driven by persuasion while violence by coercion.

In practice, however, modern politics and violence are two sides of the same coin. The modern state is an extremely coercive authority that largely, though not entirely, uses force—police, prisons, courts of law, etc.—to organize society.

To accept modern state law as the arbiter of social order is to suggest that violence is the only language that men and women understand.

The author is a researcher at Makerere Institute of Social Research.

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